Easy on the Mayo, Please
A local newspaperman’s passion for pimento cheese.
Among other things, Bob Carlton has written about film, nightlife, and food in his 32 years at the Birmingham News. In recent years, he decided to take a stab at being a food entrepreneur by launching his own brand—Bob’s Soon-To-Be-Famous Pimento Cheese.
Carlton began making pimento cheese in the late ’90s. “I would make it for people to give at Christmas or take to parties or for football tailgates or whatever. Everybody told me they loved it,” he says. At the pleading of a co-worker, Carlton decided to go legit.
“So, I started selling it, emailing folks when I was making it. From that I went to the Pepper Place Farmers’ Market in June of 2011 for the first time. I just don’t have the time or the money to get it started in grocery stores. That’s the beauty of Pepper Place; you can have an idea, and with a little bit of money, you can at least try it out. If it works, it works. I’m not making any money, but at least I’m having fun—well, kinda having fun. If I figured it out, when it’s all said and done, I’m probably making about five dollars an hour.”
Pimento cheese, of course, is as southern as grits and catfish. The cheese spread has been introduced to generations of kids who either love it or loathe it. Carlton admits he was not always a huge fan of pimento cheese but recalls the first time it made a lasting impression. The Linden, Alabama, native was visiting his uncle in Montgomery as a teen: “I remember Uncle Charles grating cheese and getting a jar of mayonnaise and a little jar of pimentos and tossing and making pimento cheese. I don’t even know if I ate it. I just remember seeing him making it. And it just kinda struck me that you didn’t have to go to the grocery store to buy it; you could actually make it at home. It stuck with me; it didn’t inspire me at the time but somehow years later it did.” Carlton says that his recipe has evolved over time. It features, among other ingredients, a little mayonnaise and four cheeses: sharp white cheddar, Monterey Jack, hoop cheese, and mild cheddar.”
Being stingy with mayonnaise occasionally elicits scoldings from customers. “Sometimes I get fussed at because there’s not enough mayo and it’ll be too crumbly; I’ve had a couple people say, ‘Well, you know, I couldn’t even spread it, it was falling apart.’ But so many people have commented, ‘I don’t even like pimento cheese but I like yours.’ And I think that’s the reason, because most people have this idea that pimento cheese is this real ‘mayonnaisey-type, girlie-type’ thing.”
Valerie Boyd, the News employee who urged Carlton to market his product, agrees. “It’s different because it’s got that spice to it, that kick to it. It’s not your typical creamy, ‘mayonnaisey’ pimento cheese,” says Boyd, who formerly owned Homegrown Special Foods in Homewood, worked at Tria Market, and currently is employed at Sysco. To say that she loves Carlton’s pimento cheese is an understatement.
“I was working at the Birmingham News at the time. Bob was the food editor then. He told me one day that he made pimento cheese, tomato pies, and strawberry pies, and all this kind of stuff,” she says enthusiastically. “I tasted his pimento cheese and oh my God! I fell in love with it. I told him, ‘This is pimento crack!’ So I took some upstairs to the advertising department. Everybody tasted it and was going nuts. Everybody was in line placing orders. One of the graphic artists [at the newspaper] became addicted to it, too, and he actually created a logo that read ‘Pimento Crack’. But then we realized we really couldn’t do that.” She says that several employees became “followers” of Carlton’s tasty dish and all hounded him to start selling.
Boyd’s preference is eating Bob’s Soon-To-Be-Famous on scrambled eggs, while the creator himself especially loves it on hamburgers. Carlton doesn’t add the pimento cheese until the burger is almost cooked. “I don’t like it real gooey and melty; I still want to have the texture. Maybe add a couple of strips of bacon,” he explains. On a recent Saturday morning at his Pepper Place booth, he shared a delicious sandwich that his pal (and Black & White staffer) Warren Caldwell dreamed up while watching football. It’s been dubbed the Southern Belly Sammich and consists of Bob’s pimento cheese, bacon, Wickles Pickles (an Alabama-made spicy-sweet pickle), slaw, mayo, and white bread. It’s pretty darn good, too. The name is inspired by the John T. Edge book Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South.
After a successful demonstration at last year’s Southern Women’s Show, Carlton has been invited back for the October 2012 event. “I left some things out so they couldn’t copy the exact recipe. Maybe I left the cayenne pepper out. Or maybe the Worcestershire sauce,” he confesses. The main labor is chopping and grating, with “tossing it all together” being the fun part. “That’s when you know you’ve almost got it finished,” he says.
Carlton has been selling his pimento cheese at the Pepper Place Farmers’ Market on alternating Saturday mornings. He often sells out, so arrive early. Local chef Franklin Biggs, one of the founders of the Pepper Place market, says that when Carlton is not there, people look for him. Biggs often hears, “Oh darn. No pimento cheese this Saturday!” Bob Carlton will be at the Pepper Place on July 14 and 28. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/BobsPimentoCheese. &